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Films of fantasy genre are rich material for interpretation in terms of superficial and hidden meanings. By using fantastic imagery, characters, and tropes, fantasy films reach a variety of viewers and often succeed in delivering powerful messages. Two films under consideration, Beowulf (2007) by Robert Zemeckis and Hero (2002) by Zhang Yimou, are modern fantasy films, which have historical and literary background. Both films represent the artistic approach towards the genre common for the countries they were made in, and at the same time carry a distinct authors’ voice. The concept of “hero” is at the core of both films; however, the approach to this conventional genre character is different, as is the message behind it.
Beowulf and Hero as Fantasy Films
The films of the fantasy genre are often hard to identify, as the definition of the genre itself is rather vague and debatable. In her book The Fantasy Film, researcher Katherine Fowkes admits that the definition of fantasy genre is rather broad, and horror and sci-fi films can arguably be considered fantasy. She proposes that “the term could be understood to refer to ‘‘fantastic’’ story elements that are integral to the film’s story-world” (2010, p. 5). Beowulf is an adaptation of a poem, which is related to heroic deeds of the titular hero (Ray Winstone). It takes place in a real historical period. However, Beowulf faces fantastic creatures, and magic plays an important role in the film. Beowulf with its mixture of literary source material and modern stylistic approach can be considered a fantasy film. Hero, in its turn, is inspired by real historical events, and its fantasy elements are limited to the presentation of martial arts scenes. In these scenes, the characters often break the laws of physics by flying and slowing down time, and the nature often reacts to the actions of the characters. The decision to bring the supernatural element to the choreography of fight scenes is mostly stylistic and is used to appeal to a broad audience. However, this fantastic element is enough for Hero to be considered a fantasy film, as such approach is common to the Chinese tradition of the genre.
Concepts of Hero and Fame in Beowulf
Beowulf is grounded on a famous Anglo-Saxon poem by an unknown author. The film was directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman, all of whom had previous experience in fantasy, sci-fi, and horror genres. The film is a rather close adaptation of the source material, with minor changes being made in the plot and character choice. Visually, it is made in stylistics common to modern fantasy film, with dynamic action scenes and orchestral score; it also uses technical innovations of the motion capture animation. The film follows the titular hero, who is asked to defeat a hideous bloodthirsty monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). After defeating the monster, Beowulf is seduced by his mother (Angelina Jolie). He becomes a king and years later is forced to reckon with the faults and sins of his youth, in a literal form of his bastard son - a bloodthirsty dragon. Ironically, he repeats the fate of the previous king Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), whose deformed offspring he was fighting in the beginning (Zemeckis, 2007). While a simple hero story on the surface, Zemeckis’s Beowulf deconstructs traditional characters of a fantasy narrative, namely the hero, the wise king, and the monster. It also avoids romanticizing the story, highlighting its horror elements, as the film is full of scenes with explicit sexuality and gruesome violence. When analyzing the film, one can find multiple modern life parallels such as ones related to aggressive military policy of the USA or the destruction of a politician’s reputation by a sex scandal; the difficulty of a public person to maintain the fictional public image or controversial religious themes. The character of Beowulf in the film, while one-dimensional on the surface, appears to be rather complex so that understanding this character is pivotal to studying the film's overall themes. As the viewer first meets Beowulf, he is shown as a typical knight in search of fame, while being depicted as a brave, masculine, boastful, and self-confident man. However, even in the early scenes, it is shown that the stories about his heroic deeds are exaggerated, often by Beowulf himself. His stories constantly change to make him look more heroic and often conceal the truth and to hide his vices (Zemeckis, 2007). These aspects of Beowulf’s character and his subsequent cynical attitude towards his fame can be viewed as the reflection of the author’s personal positions, as researcher Kathleen Forni mentions:
…creators of popular culture often model their heroes “on the creators themselves”, and the film is very much a product of a self-reflexive Hollywood sensibility insofar as its axiomatic assumption seems to be that fame is a burden. (2009, p. 52)
The film shows that the public image of a famous person is often constructed in the media and the truth, which hides beneath the facade of idealization, is not always pleasant. Using an iconic hero to comment on the burdens of fame is a smart choice, as there is nothing that can be more idealized than an image of a hero from legends. The film asks: how a real prototype (if one ever existed) could live up to the legend of Beowulf? In the world of Beowulf, legends and word-of-mouth stories represent modern media, which both create and destroy their “heroes”. As Beowulf becomes old, he faces the consequences of his “heroic” past, of both the reality and the fiction of his legendary life. His fame forces multiple young wannabe heroes to try and conquer his land and defeat Beowulf, which leads to the continuation of violence. Without the legend of Beowulf, there could be much less violence in his land. The truth which he tries to hide behind the facade of a legendary image returns to haunt him in a literal form of his bastard son - a golden fire-breathing dragon. Beowulf ends up a defeated old man with a cynical view on his life and heritage (Zemeckis, 2007). The origin of Beowulf's downfall lies in the fact that he gives in to his vices and desires. There is an obvious parallel between the story of the fallen hero Beowulf and numerous scandals around famous public figures and politicians who are unable to maintain their idealized public image. As the secrets behind their public life are revealed, they become victims of their true nature. Kathleen Forni claims that:
The film reveals that the temptations we give into, however small, harmless or pleasurable they may seem, often return when we least expect them, rabid and famished for blood.” The assumption that great men are destroyed by sexual desire is of course a reflection of current socio-political tabloid scandals. (2009, p. 51)
While this point was made years ago, current sexual scandals and the way they change the political climate in the Western world make the film’s themes more relevant. The monsters in the film have a physical manifestation. However, both of them are allegorical representations of the past sins of their fathers. By deciding to face his past sins, Beowulf solidifies his heroic status, not in a mythical but in a more humane way. Beowulf becomes a hero by facing the consequences of his actions and not by hiding behind the lies of the legend. Thus, the film presents an interesting deconstruction of a common fantasy trope of “hero”. While it can obviously be interpreted as a morality tale for young male viewers, its subtle social commentary should not be disregarded.
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Propaganda, Choice and Author’s Position in Hero
Hero, directed by an acclaimed Chinese director ZhianYimou, tells the story of a failed assassination attempt on the King of Qin (Chen Daoming) by a nameless swordsman (Jet Li). The plot of the film draws inspiration from true events, but, at the same time, it is complex and is heavily reliant on unconventional non-linear narrative, as the story is told from the perspective of Nameless, who turns out to be an unreliable narrator. The film mixes historical background with stylized action scenes and emotional drama to appeal to a wide audience both in China and abroad. The main attraction of the film was the choreography of the fight scenes and beautiful production design. While the film gained commercial success, the critical reception of the film was mixed, as many critics stressed that the film was rather heavy on propaganda (Larson, 2010, p. 154). The film promotes the idea of self-sacrifice, wisdom of government, and unity of the country. As researcher Wendy Larson emphasizes, many critics considered the film to be pro-authoritarian (Larson, 2010, p. 159). Similar to Beowulf, Yimou’s film also provides an interesting perspective on what it costs to be a hero. The first major aspect of the film which differentiates it from fantasy tradition is its moral ambiguity. There is no clear division between good and evil in Hero. Nameless, who is supposed to be the titular “hero”, turns out to be a conspirator in the attempt to assassinate the King. The King turns out to be a wise ruler with a clear motive to unite the country and to end the war (at least from the perspective of the filmmakers). Nameless can see the foresight and wisdom of the King, and this revelation contradicts his worldview. As a result, Nameless changes his mind and admits that the King's intentions are good for the country (Yimou, 2002). Hero's journey in the film is to sacrifice his life for a bigger purpose. In the narrative of the film, the hero is defined not by his mastery of sword fighting but by his understanding of the importance of the needs of the state over his personal ideals. The idea to value the needs of state over self is the agenda brought by state propaganda, and it reflects the ruling ideology in China. This aspect of the film caused most of the criticism. Interestingly, such approach to the genre filmmaking was in many ways innovative at the time. Researcher Xuelin Zhou explains that before Hero, martial arts cinema in China seemed to have no ideological position:
Hero subverts a central aspect of the spirit of chivalry by combining individual chivalric concerns with nationalism… …Hero shakes up this tradition by adding a national (and therefore collective, institutional and governmental) twist to the martial arts genre. (2017, p. 40)
However, then taken out of the national context the film provides an unusual perspective on the nature of ‘hero’. Its characters have to make difficult moral choices the consequences of which are not even apparent. While Beowulf is closely related to consequences of choice, Hero explores the nature of choice itself.
Moreover, the author’s position on the film's ideas should be considered. Xuelin Zhou suggests that the theme of national awareness over personal gripes in the film is the reflection of the personal experience of director Zhang Yimou (Zhou, 2017, p. 41). Zhou interprets the final scene of Hero quoting another researcher Chris Berry, while stating that:
To many viewers, this act symbolized surrender and submission to authority. Chris Berry has, however, interpreted the scene differently, by relating it to the director’s own life. He sees it as a reflection of the “survival strategy” that Zhang developed while struggling in “an ideologically hostile environment” (2017, p.41)
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Zhang Yimou struggled to maintain his artistic integrity, while at the same time trying to find financing for the films he wanted to make. As Xuelin Zhou stresses, the director was always open about his policy of ‘acceptance’ which secured his possibilities to create films (2017, p. 43). From this perspective, the film depicts attempts of an artist to maintain his integrity in an ideology-led state since the film explores the role of an artist in society. Yimou’s hero is a master of art with a distinct civil position. In the current historical circumstances of China, this position is serving the state.
Beowulf and Hero are effective examples of how fantasy genre can contain greater ideas. The two films focus on a concept of “hero” from different perspectives. Yimou’s film sees hero not as a personality but as a choice one makes considering broader state interests. Hero in Zemeckis’s film is a concept created by the media. It is not a person but an idealized image of fame and reputation, which a real person strives and fails to live up to. Both Beowulf and Hero deal with difficult moral choices. The two films cover similar issues, but the outcome is drastically different, namely Yimou creates a propaganda piece which is confident and optimistic, while Zemeckis and his team create a cynical and often ugly, both aesthetically and morally, deconstruction of the source poem and the fantasy genre as a whole.